Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Senator Obama Doesn't Understand"

In the first presidential debate on Friday night, Senator McCain tried repeatedly to cast Senator Obama as a naive lightweight who does not understand foreign policy. Seven times, McCain laid the charge that Obama just doesn't get it.

-"Senator Obama doesn't understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy."
-"And, yes, Senator Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn't understand, it's got to be a new strategy..."
-"What Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand is that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone ..."
-"I don't think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power."
-"If we adopted Senator Obama's set date for withdrawal, then that will have a calamitous effect in Afghanistan and American national security interests in the region. Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand there is a connection between the two."
-"Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn't understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia."
-"Senator Obama still doesn't quite understand -- or doesn't get it -- that if we fail in Iraq, it encourages al Qaeda."

In schools, in the boardroom, even around the kitchen table, people tend to demonstrate their knowledge by proving what they think to be true rather than by attacking their interlocutors for their failure to understand. McCain was deploying a peculiar form of persuasion that we see often in our politics: he was trying to make a self-referential claim by an other-referential jab. By calling Obama naive he was trying to imply that he was not. Since it is bad taste in politics (as in real life) to be a self-professed know-it-all, it was, McCain probably thought, a classier act to simply dismiss Obama as naive and allow the conclusion that he understood foreign policy better to follow.

Yet this was exactly the failed strategy that Al Gore used against George Bush in their presidential debates in 2000. Although some pundits thought that Al Gore was scoring debate points, many viewers came away thinking that he was a condescending know-it-all.
Even the most artful rhetorician of our time, President Ronald Reagan, had to strike the right balance of tone and humor to successfully get away with his "there you go again" rejoinder. This well executed line in his debate with President Carter in 1980 was one of the defining moments of that campaign. But it gained traction only because there was a growing consensus in the electorate that the decades-long liberal formula for solving the country's economic woes was obsolete and in need of overhaul. "Do you still not get it" only works when the audience has already gotten it and moved on to newer solutions, leaving one's interlocutor alone in the dustheap of history.

The problem is that in 2008, Obama is not alone in his views. There are significantly more voters tired of George Bush's unilateralism, his hard-headed focus on the war on terrorism in Iraq, and his refusal to negotiate with rogue nations than there are voters who would prefer to stay his course. Unlike in 1980 when the country was moving to the political right, this year, many Independents will be apt to wonder if it is McCain who still doesn't get it.

Senator McCain would do well to remember that the primary season is over and he needs to stop speaking only to his base if he wants to narrow Obama's lead in the polls. The strategy of calling one's debate partner naive (a euphemism for a fool) does not often get one extra points from neutral bystanders, independent voters. If Republicans were, like McCain, exasperated on Friday night with their perception that Obama just wouldn't see the obvious, McCain probably appeared condescending to Independents with the forced grins by which he greeted Obama's alleged displays of naivete. McCain needs to stop harping on the charge that Obama doesn't get it but start proving that HE gets it - that many Independents and Democrats are looking to restore the country's relationship with the rest of the world, that there are many Americans who see the war in Iraq as a foreign policy tangent to the brewing problems in Afghanistan. Maybe Senator Obama doesn't get it. But do you, Senator McCain?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Cracks of Neo-Liberalism Appear

First we allowed the mortgage companies and banks to become massive oligarchies. Then we excused the shadow banking system of investment banks and hedge funds from the normal regulations other banks are subject to because we believed that the consequences of competitive (read greedy) behavior are natural and justified. Then these banks overextended themselves and by their oligarchic might are now in a position to seriously threaten the stability of the US and global economic system. So now the federal government must step in to buy up their rotten assets at a price higher than what they are worth, wait and hope that these prices go back up before they are returned to the market.

Secretary Paulson's solution is no more flawed than the excesses that brought us to where we are. It is surely argument by fait accompli, but it's central thrust is also compelling. The problem is no longer illiquidity but insolvency, and because some banks are (woefully) "too big to fail," government probably needs to step in. Yes, a bail-out socializes losses, but that is exactly the point of a bail-out. When in crisis, we don't point fingers, we find a solution first. Wall Street may be putting a knife to Main Street, but in the end Mr Jone's savings does depend on what happens to the Dow Jones.

Democrats are not the ones trying to torpedo the plan, now improved with some oversight provisions. They're OK with government intervention and regulation, of course. They even have the votes, but they don't want to go without consensus. It's rank-and-file Republicans who are crying foul and refusing to tow the presidential line. What a far cry from those halycon days when President Bush could snap his fingers and his party would dance for him. But right now, hard-headed ideologues are back at their game. Republican defectors in congress do not want taxpayers to be saddled with bad assets, and they certainly don't want government to own equities in these hitherto private banks. Why? Because they don't want liberals to have any excuse to rebuild the size and scope of the federal government they have so assiduously sought to dismantle in the last 30 years. Government is just bad news, for these folks, come what may. But experience has finally tampered George Bush; hard ideologue he is no more. "I'm a strong believer in free enterprise, so my natural instinct is to oppose government intervention. I believe companies that make bad decisions should be allowed to go out of business. Under normal circumstances, I would have followed this course. But these are not normal circumstances, " he told the nation on Wednesday night. One thing is for sure - a house divided cannot stand. The hegemonic days of neo-liberalism are coming to a close. Like it or not, regulation is back in vogue - just listen to the presidential candidates.

Let's talk politics. What's John McCain's potential value-add here? Bring Republicans back on board with the president? That won't do, for it would brand him as a lackey of the Bush team. It's not clear that he could even if he wanted to. He's always been the maverick to cross the aisle to the other side (be it to Kennedy or to Feingold) and not been the best at rallying his own crowd. That's what a maverick means - a good defector but not a a good uniter (of his base)- a campaign slogan Obama people could exploit. In any case, McCain's official position now is that he has no position. If he isn't going to take a position, surely he could have been remained indifferent while on the campaign trail?

As McCain has left the stump, Joe Biden and congresssional Democrats have continued on the attack. He is taking a gamble that the rate of deterioration of his poll numbers that probably would have happened anyway this week would have been steeper had he remained on the campaign than if he had taken a time out. I'm not sure this gamble will prove any wiser than his previous one, Palin.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

McCain's Campaign Suspension

Today the McCain campaign announced their candidate would suspend his campaign. He could be calling a time out when things aren't looking so good for him politically or he could be genuinely hoping to return to Capitol Hill to convince fellow Republicans to support President Bush's and Secretary Paulson's bailout bill. Ironically, McCain's decision to suspend his campaign (and even to postpone Friday's debate) is going to look more like a gimmick than an act of statesmanship because our logocracy craves words - even if they must be campaign words - in our hour of need.

The move certainly fits an emerging pattern. This is a campaign of high stakes, big moves and about-turns. The Sarah Palin pick was the first maverick move. This one is the second, and equally risky. They reveal a flailing campaign that believes that the electoral fundamentals tend too powerfully against them, and only big risk moves give them a chance to shake up the prevailing dynamics. Specific to what's on the table in Capitol Hill right now, McCain has to walk a very tight rope. A true maverick would not walk hand in hand with President Bush, but this tethered maverick will also have to pay for the sins of his president if financial collapse ensues.

41 days before election, every decision will be (and therefore is) seen as a political tactic. Some say McCain is hoping to cancel Friday's debate because he knows that he's not going to be able to score many foreign policy debate points at a time when everyone is thinking about Wall Street. But whatever McCain's intentions, privately, everyone in congress knows that the campaign suspension is a political stunt at least in the precise sense that nobody thinks that the presence or absence of John McCain will make or break a deal. If anything he could be complicating very delicate discussions. Congress is a legislative body of 535 individuals, led by committee chairpersons and party leaders. It's the leadership, specific committee chairpersons and members who are striking deals behind the scene. John McCain does not belong to any pertinent committee, so his role in all of this is comparatively trivial. And he knows it, if not he would not have been on the campaign road for most of the past year. Washington can do without one senator.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Paradox of Logocracy

A character in Washington Irving's 1807 work, Salmagundi, once described America as a logocracy, or a government of words. Words created this country, words constituted it, words are necessary in these trying and confusing times because they can calm markets and soothe nerves. But our logocracy was uncharacteristically reticent this past week. President Bush's two minute speech last Thursday - no questions allowed - offering nothing concrete was anything but an extended fireside chat. The aspirants to his job weren't particularly loquacious or substantive either. McCain proposed a sack and a commission, while Obama waited to offer a set of ambiguous principles. Bush, McCain and Obama were scrambling to catch up with events that have overtaken them because political and partisan scripts offer only simplistic and rigid cookie cutter solutions to a deliquescent reality. The truth was they didn't know what to say and they didn't want to be boxed in.

As our politicians have stood down, the expert bureaucrats have taken over. In our moment of need, our logocracy paused and some believe, rightly so. This is not the time for words, Secretary Henry Paulson seemed to be saying as he met privately with members of congress. As Paulson put it: ""We can spend a lot of time talking about how it happened and how we got here. But we have to get through the night first." Better well done than well (or nothing) said, the Treasury Secretary seemed to be saying.

That is not to say that Paulson's $700b proposal for the federal government to buy out the mortgage industry's bad loans has not met with criticism, and a rising tide of it. Democrats (and some Republicans) want something for Main Street in return for what Wall Street gets, but they won't get very much. In highlighting the severity of the situation to lawmakers, Paulson was hoping to preempt congressional obstructionism, implying that (Democratic) justice will stand in the way of efficiency. It also allowed him to avoid having to explain away the moral hazard of bailouts to fellow economic conservatives. Now is not the time for pointing fingers, crying injustice, or as Phil Gramm would put it, whining.

Can we trust the expert though? There is a pressing if frightening sense that we must, especially in an election year when being seen as obstructionist may be more politically damaging than doing something/anything. For this reason, congress will be pressured to settle for Paulson's fait accompli with some minor alterations. How ironic that in a moment of crisis we reject words as obstacles to action, but it is precisely in moments of emergency that democracy especially demands justification and assurance by way of words. This is the paradox of our logocracy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

September Surprise!

Neither McCain nor Obama won their party's nomination because of their competence on the economy. Many Republicans wanted to reward McCain for his principled stand on the "surge" and many Democrats wanted to punish Hillary Clinton for her vote on the Iraq war. (Perhaps we need to think about the consequences of a really long campaign season when we pick candidates who may no longer be relevant a few months down the road - the alternative could have been Romney versus Clinton.) Well, the September surprise is here and both nominees are now scrambling to get ahead and on top of the new issue du jour. Obama has regained a slight lead, bolstered in no small part by his new flurry of negative ads and the McCain's gaffe on "fundamentals." More important, if the markets continue to tumble, this election isn't going to be close.

For these are among the worst economic conditions this nation has faced since the Great Depression. Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Lehman, and Merrill Lynch are the gold-standards on Wall Street! And if these weren't enough, we know that Wash Mutual, Goldman, and Morgan are also on the brink. And the Fed Reserve coming in to bail out AIG - now that's an admission of impending tragedy if ever there was one. This was not a confidence-boosting signal to Wall Street, and the Dow tumbled another 450 points on Wednesday. Equally unpersuaded, as I write, markets are falling hard in Asia.

This September surprise may turn out to be the agenda-setting event of this election. Not Iraq, not Bush, not Jeremiah Wright, not even lipstick. So dominant is this Issue Number One that barely any attention was given to the terrorist attack on the American embassy in Yemen today. This recallibration of national priorities is non-trivial. If it's the economy stupid, then it's a referendum on the Republicans, unless McCain can work some Rovian magic.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What Hapened to "Nothing But the Truth?"

"Thanks but no thanks for that bridge to nowhere" is a crowd-pleasing one-liner that Sarah Palin has flaunted verbatim in countless speeches since her nomination accceptance address. But these are indisputable facts. 1. In 2006, she supported the bridge to nowhere. 2. She never said no thanks to the 230 million dollars promised by Congress, to be spent on something else. 3. By the time she said no, Congress had officially killed the ear-mark project. 4. She continues to support the larger of two bridges to nowhere (in Anchorage). So actually, Palin meant, "thanks, but no thanks; sure, why not." But then we have become so accustomed to imprecision and verbal infelicities that we have been quick to miss, and therefore exonerate, what is often deliberate omission and ambiguation calculated to deceive.

This is the same strategy George Bush frequently deploys. Consider these fateful words: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Like Palin's statement, this line in the 2003 State of the Union address is calculated to deceive in this one sense: both Palin and Bush knew full well that there was another side to the story to be told that would qualify the certainty of their claims. Yet the use of declarative, unqualified, and unequivocal language insinuated such certainty. Because style not substance, omisson and not outright fabrication communicated such deceptions, both these statements are not formally false. But that is not to say that they were strictly dedicated to the truth.

Sarah Palin has told crowd after crowd that she put the Alaska Governor's plane on ebay. Formally true again - she did just that. But she sold the plane via a private broker, and one would not have thought that from the sassy way she performed that punch-line. Falsehoods beget more falsehoods. "You know what I enjoyed the most? She took the luxury jet that was acquired by her predecessor and sold it on eBay -- and made a profit!" John McCain declared in Wisconsin at a campaign stop last Friday. Well, the plane was sold at a loss.

Palin's supporters will want to give Palin the benefit of the doubt; it's routine politics they say. But isn't this exactly what irritated conservatives about Bill Clinton and his elastic relationship with the truth? If Palin's supporters say, lighten up; I say, as George Orwell said, "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." If American democracy was created by the eloquent penmanship of Thomas Jefferson, the careful argumentation of the Federalist Papers and the precise wording of the Constitution, American democracy may well see its end in the crowd-pleasing, hair-raising zingers our contemporary politicians so slickly feed us. Let us get back to basics. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help us God.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sarah Palin Doesn't Know the Bush Doctrine

In her first interview to the national media on ABC yesterday, Sarah Palin fumbled, regained her footing, and prevailed.

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?
PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?
GIBSON: The Bush -- well, what do you -- what do you interpret it to be?
PALIN: His world view.
GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war ...
GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?
PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend.

Palin thought that the Bush Doctrine is the Bush Worldview. Incredible, true, and typical. This is the guttural politics as we have seen in the last eight years. Trust the guy, and you can trust his decisions. Nevermind geopolitics, forget strategy. Forget even "conditions on the round" (better read as "The Real World"). Just know the guy's worldview and you're all set. Yes the complex panopoly of US foreign policy can be understood through a cliff notes biography of the president.

[And by the way, the Bush Doctrine does not require that a threat to the American people be "imminent," only that it is credible in the foreseeable future, where "credible" and "foreseeable" are loosely defined.]

Cognitive heuristics - they are the bane of American politics. A cue here and a clue there is all we need these days to make the most important civic decision as Americans: vote for our president. Nevermind what the candidates' policies are; just know who they are as people. If he's a good guy, that's a good enough cue for us to vote for him. My chum in the White House. He'll take care of me, right?

Personalities, worldviews - these are cues; shortcuts for doing the hard political homework of scrutinizing exactly what McCain and Obama are promising us these days. Palin exemplifies a genuine belief that the responsibilities of citizenship are minimal. Just love your guy ("my guy" as she put it in her nomination acceptance speech), love your country and all will be good. She is the perfect political spouse!

Watch the video and notice her gingerly clenched fists initially, when she was fumbling to even understand Gibson's question. And then notice how tightly they were clenched as she found her footing. It was as if her body language was saying that "I may have slipped a little in the intellectual part of your question (the dreary part that dealt with facts and arguments), but I can more then compensate in kind with heart and conviction."

Why is this bad for democracy? Because good intentions aren't good enough. But then to someone who disagrees with me, there is a sense in which we are beyond reconciliation. For I prefer to speak in the publicly falsifiable language of arguments, while others prefer the inscrutable, but politically potent language of conviction.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lipstick Politics

American politics has degenerated from the gutter to the sty.

As if the Obama campaign hasn't been set back enough in the past week, he had to bring lipstick and pigs into the electoral equation yesterday. Whatever his intentions, he's going to set himself back by a few more days in a calendar that is counting down to November 4, and he has probably lost forever the halo that he does not play politics.

Obama tried to come out swinging this week, as he was urged, but he seemed to have crashed his hockey stick on his own shin. Why are Republicans so much better at attack mode, Democrats are wondering?

It doesn't even matter that McCain once used the same words against Hillary Clinton, because voters make associations with words, and right now, many (enough) potential voters have conjoined "lipstick" and "Sarah Palin" because of her oft repeated line that the difference between a pittbull and a hockey mom is lipstick. In this context, it was simply foolish for Obama to play with fire, or in this case, lipstick. At least in this round, Obama failed to discern the pulse of our politics, and the chain of conceptual and rhetorical associations (logical or implied) that constitute it.

"Lipstick on a pig" is a common colloquailism taken more literally than it should have been, Obama people say. Ah, but if you have to explain something in politics when the other side insists on playing visceral politics, you've already lost. It was too easy for a Republican or Independent voter to assume that Obama was mocking Sarah Palin. How ironic: a professor trying to embrace colloquailism, but succeedingly only in tying himself up in a politically incorrect knot.

The Obama campaign is brushing all this off as "swift boat politics," but the fact is they are struggling to move past the fog of lipstick and smelly fish. Swift boat politics works: but, as Obama is learning (and as the Clintons always knew), there is art even in the task of smear.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008

Whoever Said that VP Picks Don't Matter?

John McCain's campaign has turned a 7 point deficit into a 4 point lead according to the new USA Today/Gallup poll. This post-convention bump did not come from McCain's acceptance speech, which only received an "excellent" rating from 15% of those polled, compared to the 35% Obama received. The bump came from Sarah Palin. Here is the poll's most important result: before the convention, Republicans by 47%-39% were less enthusiastic than usual about voting. Now, they are more enthusiastic by 60%-19%.

The new McCain campaign message is that change is about reforming Washington, aided in no small part by a Number 2 that has developed/created quite a reputation for reform. This new configuration appears to be overshadowing Obama's definition that change requires a change in party control of the White House, because it has tapped into the anti-Washington sentiment felt among the Republican base.

Palin is running not as the back-up plan (as most vp candidates have), but as right-hand woman, and this is why Barack Obama took the risk of appearing unpresidential today by attacking Sara Palin directly himself. But Obama's response - "You can't just make stuff up" - sounded like a petulant kid crying foul rather than an effective counter-punch. As the campaign fumbles for a working riposte, it will become clear that the answer was always right before their eyes. By an ironic twist of fate, Hillary Clinton, though unsuccessful in her own presidential bid, has become the queen and kingmaker. Sarah Palin would not have risen from political obscurity into national prominence but for the schism generated by Clinton's candidacy within the Democratic party. Yet Joe Biden cannot perform the role of attack dog as viscerally as he would if Palin were a man, and so ironically, Clinton will have to be dispatched to play this traditionally vice-presidential role. The question is whether the media will give Clinton the time of day now that the primary season is decidedly over. It is becoming clearer that if Biden was a good pick, Clinton would have been a better one.

Safe for the October surprise still to be discovered, the tectonics of the match-up are now mostly settled. With the VPs now selected, two previously toss-up states have moved into the "leaning" category: PA has moved in Obama's direction because of Biden, and MO has moved in McCain's direction because of Palin. The only vice-presidential debate sceduled on Oct 2 will be more critical than the first of three presidential debates on September 26. There's been a lot of talk of Gallup polls conducted immediately after the conventions only getting it right fifty percent of the time, but less acknowledged is the fact that by the first week of October - the week the vp candidates shall debate - these polls have gotten it right almost every time since 1952. On October 2, Biden and Palin will have their one chance to get it right for their respective campaigns.

Friday, September 5, 2008

McCain's Testimonial to the Independent Voter

Even though he had one day less than Obama did in his convention (because of Gustav), McCain's convention bounce was equal to Obama's. 60 days to Election Day, a CBS poll reports that McCain and Obama are tied 42-42. Obama's lead on McCain with independents has shrunk from 6 to 3 points in one week.

Senator John McCain did this by speaking mainly to independents last night. After fumbling for months to find the right pitch to rally his base and still appeal to independents, McCain found his solution this week in the division of labor between Palin and himself. By picking Palin to energize the base, he could continue to be the maverick that he has always been more comfortable being.

Because independents care not for parties but for personalities, McCain's speech last night was a spoken personal statement to the American voter for his fitness for the Oval Office. This was less a speech about specifically where he would take America but a general speech about why he, not Obama, should take the lead. As such, there was very little policy substance in the speech, in contrast to Obama's speech in Denver. (Recall that the McCain campaign had forced Obama down the path of more detail in his acceptance speech because of the ongoing Republican charge that Obama, the celebrity, was all talk and no substance.) Deftly inserted in the middle and driest part of the speech, McCain quickly disposed of energy, education, the global economy, Georgia, Russia, and Iraq. But these were not the main focus of his speech.

Instead, McCain sought to (1) confess the failures of his party, (2) divorce himself from his party as much as he could, and to (3) reconstitute the frame used to describe him - that he is not a creature of his party but his own man.

(1) McCain divorced himself from his party and the failures of the Bush administration by rejecting the "constant partisan rancor" in Washington, and implicitly attacking some of his colleagues (together with Obama) as "people (who) go to Washington to work for themselves." In so doing, he conceded the failings of his party before his party - a crucial act of contrition that independents want to hear and the premise for the rest of his speech.

(2) Then he moved on to lay out his maverick credentials. Insofar as his party was guilty, he was the least guilty among them: so he repeated his attacks on pork-barrel spending bills, he reminded his audience that he defended the surge when most didn't, he boldly addressed the touchy issue of immigration when he declared that "the latina daughter of migrant workers" is God's child too. He gave notice to congressional Democrats that "change is coming" by way of his fiesty and reformist vice-president, and in so doing grafted his "maverick" status with the "change" message that has resounded throughout this election season. By mentioning "change" 10 times, the maverick of the Republican party was trying to wrestle away Obama's mantle and to declare it as his own.

(3) Having set himself apart from a damaged party, McCain focused the majority of his speech on building and reciting his personal ethos. McCain told us that "the party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan is going to get back to basics." What are the basics? It is the idea of a man and his love for his country. McCain invited his audience to judge him as an individual and as a patriot, and not a creature of his unpopular party. Thus the last part of McCain's speech focussed powerfully on his experience as a POW. He argued that age and experience have not tarnished him the way experience in Washington tarnished, say, Joe Biden. "I have the record and the scars to prove it; Senator Obama does not," McCain told us.

McCain's scars, according to him, are proof that he is a fighter, and a seasoned one. After the war, McCain wasn't his own man any more, as he put it, "I was my country's." "My country saved me ... and I will fight for her as long as I draw breath. So help me God." He invited the independent voter to join his crusade: "Stand up and fight ...we are Americans ... we never hide from history ... we make history."

If liberal patriotism is fueled by guilt of how the country has fallen short of its ideals and conservative patriotism is fueled by pride in American exceptionalism, McCain's call to fight for a better America combines both impulses that will prove appealing to independent voters. If McCain convinces enough voters that the City on a Hill is both a promise and a reality, then he will move into the White House next January.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Palin's Night

Today, Mitt Romney delivered a line that always predictably renders applause in a Republican audience - "there is evil in this world." Putin, Ahmadinejad and the Jihadists (as Giuliani likes to call them) are evil, we are not. There is something about liberal vacillation on this point which particularly irks the Republicans, and rouses them to chant "USA" to drown out the equivocating liberal voices. It is why the Republicans took such offense to Michelle Obama's statement that she was only recently proud of her country for the first time in her adult life. It is why the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth could not forgive John Kerry for taking the side of the enemy because of his involvement in the anti-Vietnam-war crusade.

If Republicans love their country, they hate their government. (And they would say that Democrats love their government and hate their country.) Mike Huckabee continued on Romney's leitmotif, chastising Obama for going abroad and bringing home corrupt "European ideas." This was Huckabee's pitch perfect line: "I didn't want to spend the rest of my life poor waiting for government to rescue me."

But the real story tonight was Sarah Palin's rigorous, sometimes cutting attacks at her "opponent" (preferring not to mention Obama by name). Her snide, sarcastic remarks at his self-made presidential seal, his two memoirs, the styrofoam columns at the Democratic convention, and his rousing oratory animated the crowd in a way that no speaker before her did tonight. Democrats are quivering now at the thought of someone who could actually vivify the Republicans when before they were disenchanted and unsure. She would give Biden a run for his money. Recall Palin's line about the difference between a hockey mom and a pittbull - lipstick. This unabashed Republican feminist had no qualms declaring that McCain was her guy. Palin gave a robust defense of all things good in the heart of America tonight, and the Republican base is now on fire.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Day One (Two) of the Republican Convention

President Bush, Senators Fred Thompson, and Joe Lieberman addressed the Republican convention tonight. This program was only recently put together. Thompson replaced former NYC Mayor Giuliani for tonight, presumably because there was no need for a moderate Republican if the campaign was already going to invite the Independent/Democratic Lieberman to the podium, and presumably because the Republicans are afraid of losing parts of the South they have taken for granted for the last 40 years (Thompson is a son of TN). The Republicans are taking the message of change quite literally, and Hurricane Gustav has revealed Team McCain's savvy ability to offer leadership by improvization. Given the circumstances, this was a great first night for them but the Republicans have a lot of catching up to do given new polls showing Obama's post-convention bump.

The video of John McCain did a great job of returning the attention away from Sarah Palin to the top of the ticket. (Perhaps the campaign should have announced or leaked the Palin decision and her full biography - glitches and all - earlier so that the media would have done all its digging by the start of the convention. Instead their coverage of Palin and her daughter so far this week has significantly crowded out McCain's message.) The video reminded us that this convention is about John McCain, and it was a fitting overture to Fred Thompson's speech, which highlighted McCain's biggest political asset - his character. Even though he was clearing his throat almost every minute, the lines were spot on. You might not agree with McCain on everything, Thompson told us, but you know you can trust him. Thompson reminded his audience that McCain was the original maverick (indeed the maverick that this same audience rejected in 2000) and used that idea to link McCain with Palin - a powerfully anti-establishment, anti-Washington narrative necessary for a tarnished Republican brand this election year.

If the Democrats were chanting "yes we can," implying that "no, we haven't yet," all of last week, Republicans tonight were chanting "USA, USA," implying that who we are and what we have achieved is worth celebrating. Both sides ought to think about what gets the base going, and how these war cries reveal the cleavage between the parties that any winning candidate to the White House must bridge. Joe Lieberman tried to help McCain do just that tonight, using a specifically designated portion of his speech to speak to Independents. But in this hyperpartisan era, I wonder how many minds he changed. This Zell Miller of 2008 will likely not receive any committee chairmanships next year, especially if Democrats get close to the magical 60 in the Senate.

Gustav Trumps Politics

This is an unusual moment in American politics, when the winds and arrows of outrageous fortune has caused a suspension of political time. As the Republican National Committee has temporarily cast aboard the meticulously scripted and scheduled line-up of speeches for their convention, perhaps it is time also for Americans to take stock of the questionable value of nomination conventions as little more than parties for the parties that add little value to our democracy.

After all, nomination conventions no longer serve the functions that they used to serve just a half century ago. Back then, every convention was a "brokered" convention, when all delegates were what Democrats now call "superdelegates" and these party members jostled, bargained, and cast their votes on the floor to determine the party's nominee. All this ended in the 1960s when the primary selection system took hold and primary electorate voters determined ahead of time, how their representatives - party delegates - will cast their vote for them come convention time. Even the final vestige of the convention's traditional purpose - the selection and announcement of a vice-presidential candidate - has been discarded this year, as Senators Obama and McCain announced their VP picks before the start of their convention.

Because conventions no longer serve their principal original function, they are, at best, ceremonial vestiges of an era long past, and at worst unabashed celebrations of partisanship. Yet we have become so comfortable with them that we scarely remember that in no place in the Constitution are parties mentioned or sanctioned. Indeed, the Founders railed against faction, and George Washington warned of the "baneful effects of the spirit of party" in his Farewell Address.

The McCain campaign's decision to temporarily scale back the political elements of the Republican Nomination Convention was, to some extent, a confession that nomination conventions are partisan affairs, and an admission that there is no time for partisanship and politics when there are real and pressing problems facing the country. Soon enough we shall revert back to politics and partisanship as routine, but it might be worthwhile, at least for one day, to contemplate a world without parties. If we really hate partisanship, why do we celebrate parties, and very expensive parties for parties? Gustav gave us a window into a different kind of politics that the Founders dreamt of but could never themselves deliver.